He rummaged for a comb, took it to the washstand, and ruthlessly tugged the comb through his wet locks. The corner of the looking glass atop the washstand revealed a partial view of the bed, and he saw that Evie was watching him.
Without turning, he murmured, “Am I to be a butcher’s dog tonight?”
“Butcher’s dog?” Evie repeated in confusion.
“The dog who lies in the corner of the shop and is not allowed to have any meat.”
“That comparison is hardly a c-compliment to either of us.”
There was a nearly imperceptible pause in his combing as Sebastian registered the return of the stammer. Good, he thought callously. She was not nearly as composed as she pretended to be. “Are you going to answer my question?”
“I…I’m sorry, but I would pr-prefer not to have intimate relations with you again.”
Stunned and offended, Sebastian set down his comb and turned to face her. Women never refused him. And the fact that Evie could do so after the pleasures of this morning was difficult to comprehend.
“You told me that you didn’t like to bed a woman more than once,” Evie reminded him half apologetically. “You said it would be a crashing bore.”
“Do I look bored to you?” he demanded, the towel doing little to conceal the outline of a roaring erection.
“I suppose that depends on which part of you one is looking at,” Evie mumbled, dropping her gaze to the counterpane. “I needn’t remind you, my lord, that w-w-we had an agreement.”
“You’re allowed to change your mind.”
“I won’t, however.”
“Your refusal smacks of hypocrisy, pet. I’ve already had you once. Does it really make any difference to your virtue if we do it again?”
“I am not refusing you for the sake of virtue.” Her stammer disappeared as she regained her composure. “I have an entirely different reason.”
“I’m all agog to hear it.”
“Self-protection.” With obvious effort, Evie brought her gaze to his. “I have no objection if you choose to have paramours. It’s just that I don’t want to be one of them. The sexual act means nothing to you, but it does mean something to me. I have no desire to be hurt by you, and I think that would be inevitable if I agreed to keep sleeping with you.”
As he struggled to maintain his surface calm, Sebastian’s insides stewed with a mixture of desire and resentment. “I won’t apologize for my past. A man is supposed to have experience.”
“From all indications, you’ve acquired enough for ten men.”
“Why should that matter to you?”
“Because your…your romantic history, to put it politely, is like that of a dog who goes to every back door on the street, collecting scraps at every threshold. And I won’t be one more door. You can’t be faithful to one woman—you’ve proven that.”
“Just because I’ve never tried doesn’t mean that I can’t, you judgmental bitch! It simply means that I haven’t wanted to.”
The word “bitch” caused Evie to stiffen. “I wish you wouldn’t use such foul language.”
“It seemed appropriate, given the proliferation of dog analogies,” Sebastian snapped. “Which, by the way, is an inaccurate characterization in my case, because women beg me for it, and not the other way around.”
“Then you should go to one of them.”
“Oh, I will,” he said savagely. “When we return to London, I’m going to embark on a spree of orgiastic debauchery that won’t end until someone is arrested for it. But in the meanwhile…do you truly expect that the two of us are going to share a bed tonight—and tomorrow night—as chastely as a pair of nuns on holiday?”
“That will pose no difficulty for me,” Evie said gingerly, conscious that she was delivering an insult of the highest order.
His incredulous glare should have burned a hole in the bed linens. Muttering a string of words that extended her forbidden-profanity list to a considerable degree, Sebastian dropped the towel and went to turn down the lamp. Aware of her uneasy gaze straying to his rampant arousal, Sebastian shot her a scornful glance. “Pay it no mind,” he said, climbing into bed with her. “From now on, I have every expectation that proximity to you will affect my private parts like a prolonged swim in a Siberian lake.”
The weather improved substantially during their journey back to London, with the rain finally disappearing. However, the warming temperatures outside the coach were offset by the degree of frostiness that had developed between the newlyweds inside. Although Sebastian grudgingly kept the foot warmer filled, there were no more invitations for Evie to snuggle in his arms or sleep against his chest. She knew it was for the best. The more she became acquainted with him, the more convinced Evie was that any closeness between them would result in disaster. He was dangerous to her in ways that even he wasn’t aware of.
She reassured herself with the knowledge that as soon as they arrived in town, they would more or less part company. She would stay at the club, and he would go to his house and continue his usual pursuits until he received word of her father’s death. At that time, it was likely that he would want to sell the club and use the proceeds, along with the rest of her inheritance, to replenish his family’s empty coffers.
The thought of selling Jenner’s, which had been the center of her father’s life, gave Evie a feeling of melancholy. However, it would be the most sensible course of action. Few men possessed the ability to run a gaming club successfully. Its owner had to possess the magnetism to lure people into the club, and the artful shrewdness to find ways to make them stay and spend great quantities of money. Not to mention the business sense to invest the profits wisely.
Ivo Jenner had possessed the first two qualities in moderation, but the third not at all. In the recent past he had lost a fortune at Newmarket, having become susceptible in his old age to the glib-tongued rogues who populated the racing world. Fortunately the club was such a powerful financial engine that it was able to absorb the heavy losses.
Sebastian’s unkind taunt that Jenner’s was a second-rate gambling palace was only partially correct. Evie knew from past conversations with her father, who had never bothered to mince words, that although his club was successful by anyone’s standards, it had never reached the heights to which he had aspired. He had wanted it to equal Craven’s, the rival club that had burned down so long ago. But Ivo Jenner had never been able to match the flair and devilish guile of Derek Craven. It was said that Craven had won the money of an entire generation of Englishmen. That Craven’s had disappeared at its zenith had solidified its legendary status in the collective memory of British society.
And while Jenner’s had not come close to the glory of Craven’s, it had not been for a lack of trying. Ivo Jenner had moved his own club from Covent Garden to King Street, which had once been a mere passageway into the fashionable shopping and residential area of St. James, but was now a regular roadway. After purchasing a large portion of the street and razing four buildings, Jenner had built a large and handsome club and advertised it as having the largest hazard bank in London. When gentlemen wished to play deep, they went to Jenner’s.
Evie remembered the club from her childhood, on the occasions when she had been allowed to visit her father for the day. It had been a well-appointed, if somewhat overelaborate place, and she had delighted in standing with him on the second-floor interior balcony and watching the action on the main floor. Grinning indulgently, Jenner would walk his daughter to St. James Street, where they would go to any shop she cared to visit. They went to the perfumer, the hatter’s, the book and print seller, and the bread and biscuit baker, who gave Evie a hot cross bun so fresh that the white piping of icing was half melting from the surface of the warm bread.
As the years passed, Evie’s visits to King Street had been curtailed. Although she had always blamed the Maybricks for it, she now realized that her father had also been partly responsible. It had been much easier for Jenner to love her as a child, when he could make her squeal by tossing her in the air and catching her in his burly arms. He could rumple her red hair, the same shade as his own, and soothe her tears upon leaving him by pressing a sweet or a shilling into her palm. But when she became a young woman, and he could no longer treat her like a little girl, their relationship had become awkward and distant. “This club’s no place for you, tibby,” he had told her with gruff fondness. “You has to stay away from a milling cove like me, and find some rum cull to marry.”
“Papa,” she had begged, stammering desperately, “d-don’t send me back there. Pl-please, please let me stay with you.”
“Little tangle-tongue, you belong with the Maybricks. And no use to hop the twig and run back here. I’ll only send you off again.”
Her tears had failed to sway him. During the ensuing years, Evie’s visits to her father’s club had dwindled to once every six months, or longer. Whether or not it was for her own good, the sense of being unwanted had sunk deep into her marrow. She had become so uneasy around men, so certain that they would be bored by her, that it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her stammer worsened—the harder she fought to get the words out, the more incoherent she had become, until it was easiest to remain silent and fade into the woodwork. She had become an expert at being a wallflower. She had never been asked to dance, never been kissed, never been teased or courted. The only proposal she had ever received had been cousin Eustace’s reluctant offer.
Marveling at her change in fortune, Evie glanced at her husband, who had brooded silently during the past two hours. His eyes narrowed as he looked back at her. With his cold expression and cynical mouth, he seemed completely unlike the seductive scoundrel who had shared a bed with her two days earlier.
She turned her attention to the window as the scenery of London passed by her. Soon they would be at the club, and she would see her father. It had been six months since they had been together, and Evie had braced herself for a great change in him. Consumption was a common disease, and everyone was aware of its ravages.
It was a slow death of lung tissue, accompanied by fever, coughing, weight loss, and drenching sweats at night. When death arrived, it was usually welcomed by the victim, and all those who cared for him, as an end to the terrible suffering. Evie could not imagine her robust father being reduced to such a condition. She feared seeing him equally as much as she yearned to care for him. However, she kept this all to herself, suspecting that Sebastian would only mock her if she told him of her fears.
Her pulse quickened as the carriage rolled along St. James and turned onto King Street. The long brick and marble front of Jenner’s became visible, silhouetted against the yellows and reds of a ripening sunset that glowed through the ever-present haze that hung over London. Staring through the carriage window, Evie let out a tense sigh as the vehicle passed through one of the many alleys that led from the main thoroughfare to the mews and yards behind the row of buildings.
The carriage came to a halt at the back entrance, which was far preferable to entering through the front of the building. Jenner’s was not a place that nice women frequented. A gentleman might bring his mistress, or even a prostitute who had captured his passing interest, but he would never think of escorting a respectable lady into the club. Evie became aware that Sebastian was watching her with the dispassionate interest of an entomologist observing a new species of beetle. Her sudden paleness and her visible trembling could not have escaped his notice, but he offered no word or gesture of comfort.
Preceding her from the carriage, Sebastian fitted his hands around Evie’s waist and helped her down to the ground. The smell of the back alley was the same as it had been since Evie’s childhood—manure, garbage, liquor, and the crisp overlay of coal smoke. No doubt she was the only young woman of privileged upbringing in London to think that it smelled rather like home. At least it struck her nostrils more agreeably than the atmosphere at the Maybrick house, which was redolent of rotting carpets and bad cologne.
Wincing at the ache of muscles that had been cramped in the carriage for far too long, Evie went to the doorway. Entrances to the kitchen and other service rooms were located farther along the building, but this one opened to a staircase that went up to her father’s apartments. The driver had already summoned a club employee with a few decisive pounds of his fist at the door, and stepped back perfunctorily.
A young man appeared, and Evie was relieved to see a face that she recognized. It was Joss Bullard, a long-familiar figure at the club, who had worked there as a debt collector and an usher. He was large, stocky, and dark-haired, with a bullet-shaped head and a heavy jaw. Possessing a natural inclination toward surliness, Bullard had treated Evie with a bare minimum of courtesy whenever she had visited the club. However, she had heard her father praise him for his loyalty, and for that she was appreciative.
“Mr. Bullard,” she said, “I’ve c-come to see my father. Please allow me i-i-inside.”
The burly young man did not move. “‘E ‘asn’t asked for you,” he said gruffly. He switched his gaze to Sebastian, taking note of his expensive garments. “Go to the front, sir, if you’re a member.”
“Idiot,” Evie heard Sebastian mutter, and before he could continue, Evie interrupted hastily.
“Is Mr. Egan available at pr-present?” she asked, naming the club’s factotum, who had worked for her father for the past ten years. She had no great liking for Egan, who was a boastful, blustering sort, but he wouldn’t dare refuse her entrance to her own father’s club.
“Then Mr. Rohan,” Evie said desperately. “Please tell him that M-Miss Jenner is here.”
“I told ye—”
“Get Rohan,” Sebastian snapped at the young man, and wedged his boot against the door to prevent it from being closed. “We’ll wait inside. My wife isn’t going to be kept standing out on the street.”
Looking startled by the cold gleam in the taller man’s eyes, the employee muttered his assent and disappeared swiftly.
Sebastian guided Evie over the threshold and glanced at the nearby staircase. “Shall we go upstairs?”
She shook her head. “I would rather speak to Mr. Rohan first, actually. I’m sure he’ll be able to tell me something about my father’s c-condition.”
At the sound of her slight stammer, Sebastian lifted his hand to the nape of her neck, slid it beneath her untidy hair, and squeezed gently. Though his face was still cold, his hand was warm and soothing, and she felt herself relax involuntarily. “Who is Rohan?”